Last month, Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett released his latest solo album, West Coast Town, via SideOneDummy Records. Another departure into country and Americana, it is a record, he says, that is his most autobiographical to date – rich in memories of his hometown and early days as a touring musician. Ahead of Foo Fighters' eagerly-awaited headline set at Glastonbury, Music Week caught up with Shiflett the day after his intimate show at London’s 100 Club to talk all about his new album…
Given you’re already in one of the biggest rock bands in the world, and a very hard-touring one at that, why was it so important to you to resume your solo career in the gap between Foos albums?
“Last year, when I made the record, I was on a long break and as a matter of fact when the touring ended for the last Foo Fighters record I knew we were going to have some time off. We had been working hard for years and so it was good to home and spend some time with my family and not do anything, and I did that for a while. I had all these song ideas that were kind of percolating and I did this podcast [Walking The Floor] where I interviewed [Grammy award-winning producer] Dave Cobb in Nashville at his studio. I’m such a huge fan of his work and meeting him and interviewing him was such a great experience I was just like, God, I want to make a record with that guy. I just called him and asked him. As he works with some of the best people in genre for Americana, I figured it was a long shot but surprisingly he said yes. That was in the middle of my time off and it just kind of worked out.”
It’s pretty common for people in bands to miss the studio and the road quite quickly when they get off tour. Did that happen to you?
“I always have that thing, I’ve definitely experienced that this last year. I was home for a few months and I started getting antsy. Plus, when you’re on the road you’re thinking of all the shit you’re going to have to do when you get home and then when you do get home you’re like, Argh, now I have to do all that stuff - I have to clean out the garage, organise my life and get my shit together! So, there’s a certain amount of getting away from your chores…”
West Coast Town is another venture into Americana and country territory for you – how long have those genres been interesting you?
“It’s been a love of mine for a long time but it’s not the style of music I came up playing, so I think there’s still something almost exotic about it to me. As a musician, it’s different guitars, different amps, its very different tonally. But then, on the songwriting side of it, this is just where my songwriting is going because this is the music I’m sort of immersed in when I’m in my room alone. This is a reflection of the music I listen to.”
What is it, specifically, about country and Americana that’s increasingly appealing to you?
“It’s tough to exactly define. I still love heavy rock music, when I go jogging I’ll have my headphones on and I’m listening to Kill The King by Rainbow and all the stuff I grew up listening too. But little by little, it’s a real gradual process. I think some of that was always there in some of the music I was listening to because it is reflective in a lot of The Rolling Stones and stuff I grew up with. Probably the bridge for me was rockabilly, I loved rockabilly growing up. I was obsessed with the Stray Cats when I was a kid, and that’s not far off early George Jones and Buck Owens and some of the country stuff I love.”
You’ve named the album West Coast Town after a song on the record. What was it about that song that made it representative of the whole body of work?
“Lyrically all the songs are personal to me but that one is probably the one that is nearest and dearest to my heart, it’s about growing up in Santa Barbara and it just turned into my favourite song on the record because it was so different when I went into the studio. It had a different groove, the phrasing was all different and the way that Cobb works is that he listens to the song right before you record it and he sort of gets his head around it and then he comes up with whatever he comes up with and then we start working it out. He but on a Buck song and he said, We should do it with this groove. I just love working with Cobb, it was so great to have someone you can trust your songs to. West Coast Town was the most autobiographical for sure.”
Has touring the world with Foos helped you understand your hometown and past in a new way?
“Oh, without a doubt. That’s what touring has done for me in a big way, you have to understand that when I was growing up we never travelled anywhere so a big, huge part of the draw of being a musician, outside of the fact that I love playing music and the guitar, was the idea of being a pirate and travelling the world and that sort of adventure. It’s interesting because even before all that, when I grew up in Santa Barbra I thought, God this place fucking sucks, nobody is cool here, nobody gets it, I’m just trapped in this little lame town. After moving out to LA and then later coming back to Santa Barbara, all of a sudden it was in technicolour and I just like, This is the most fucking amazing place! I’ve been all over the world and spent time in some beautiful places, but it really makes me appreciate where I came from more.”
This album also includes, Still Better Days, a song you wrote about your wife. Had you been planning on writing a song for her for a while?
“Well, when I getting all these songs together I had sort of lose ideas floating around and once I was refining them and stacking them up, I had it in mind that I wanted to write a love song, but they’re really hard to write! It’s not where my mind goes, it’s really hard to write like, Yeah we’re so in love, I want to hold our hand, stroll through the daisies! That’s really hard, I still have to figure that out at some point. For me with that song, it’s like a love song but it’s almost [written from] the point where we’ve been through some shit but we’re still standing.”
Room 102 is another love song, but one that seems to speak of heartbreak. What inspired that?
“That is sort of specifically about a relationship that I had years ago with somebody in a distant land on tour. It’s funny as when I was younger I was always falling in love with someone that conveniently lived thousands of miles away and it was impossible to have any kind of meaningful relationship. For that song in particular, I took experiences of several years and condensed it into one night. It’s not a straight diary entry, it’s not quite that autobiographical, but it’s sort of riffing on memory, like sitting in a hotel room on tour.”
Goodbye Little Rock seems to be your ode to, or reflection on, the days when you would tour in a van…
“I was drawing from my pre-Foo Fighters years, I was in a band called No Use For A Name and we spent a lot of time in the van and which I look back on fondly at that time, I love it. Band tours are a funny thing as you really turn into an animal, you’re never ever alone on them tours. On those tours there would be like seven of us and we would get two hotel rooms so every night you would be sharing a bed with one of your band mates. Every now and again you would get the odd single bed, but by and large you would be sleeping in a bed with one of your pals and then you would jam in a van with a bunch of guys. I couldn’t do it now because I’m too fucking old and spoiled!”
You just played an intimate show in London. And are you enjoying taking your music out and playing small venues?
“It’s scary because people are right there [in your face]. It really is.”
C'mon, surely that can’t affect the man who plays to thousands upon thousands of people at a time every Foos show?
“You’ve got to understand that if you’re in a band that can play a stadium or a giant festival and there’s that many people, they’re all there because they love your band. They’re all singing along and it becomes a force that carries the whole thing, and it’s hard to fuck those shows up - the people become this giant mass which is great, the energy of it is amazing. It’s a very different experience when you’re playing new music to people and trying to win them over when you’re in a bar and there’s 100 people there, and nobody has heard any of the songs. People just react differently when they’ve never heard a song before, it’s just the way that it is.”
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about yourself from making this new album?
“I think that the biggest lesson for me in the actual making of the record was relinquishing control and being open to Cobb’s suggestions. I just let him run the show when I was there, in just listened and I did that on purpose and that’s not my normal way of operating in the studio, I’m normally producing it as well. My wife actually said to me, Don't do what you normally do - just go out there and listen! It's hard, because it's your baby. Of course, we all like to think we know what's best. There were things that were difficult for me to wrap my head around in making this record. At the time it was my instinct to fight it but I didn't - and I'm really glad I didn't. To me, the greatest thing is the collaboration."